My sometime correspondent Pizza has been at it again, pondering our species, and has presented this short essay for your reading pleasure. He gives us an insight into the motivations for our various tribal behaviours, such as belief systems and war, by explaining their purpose in our evolutionary past. I would be interested to hear any thoughts readers have on the subject. Enjoy.
The Central Fact
Homo Sapiens is firstly a species. The species is divided into groups and the groups consist of individuals. This is a hierarchy; species, group, individual. Evolution operates on the species. Basic attributes include:
- The species exists as physically autonomous but socially dependent individuals comprised of approximately equal numbers of males and females.
- The macro behaviour of the species is dominated by that of adult males.
- The individuals are spontaneously self-organising into groups.
- The largest of these groups are composed of individuals holding a common belief or set of beliefs deemed by its members to be important and distinguishing.
- The function of these groups is to fight each other.
- The most intense and largest of these fights are wars.
- Incessant warfare between groups is the distinguishing characteristic of the species.
- The purpose of war is the killing or subjugation of the opposing group and the eradication of its belief system.
- In general, the advantage in warfare lies with the group whose belief system more accurately reflects objective reality. Belief that reflects reality is knowledge and knowledge is power.
- The more knowledgeable groups grow in number and size at the expense of the less knowledgeable.
- Groups, even large groups, are only marginally stable due to the persisting internal self-organising tendency of its members.
- This instability ultimately leads to disintegration into smaller groups.
- The process of conflict repeats as these fragmentary groups contend with each other and with other pre-existing external groups.
- Warfare on this model is a very effective and fast evolutionary mechanism. The species has become rapidly more survivable because of increasing knowledge and ability to manage itself while remaining physically essentially unchanged.
- This process has driven the advances made by the human species in the last fifty thousand or more years.
- Darwinian evolution operating at the individual level has had negligible influence and can be considered supplanted in the process of human development.
In the apocryphal tale, a traveller inIreland, seeking the way to Kilkenny, asked a local who replied, “If I were going to Kilkenny I wouldn’t be starting from here!” Most investigators seeking the path to knowledge of human kind choose the individual as the starting point. I would propose to them the Irish opinion.
Belief can be defined as an interpretation of the world accepted by the believer as representing objective reality. In other words it is a subjective assumption, or set of assumptions made by an individual about the nature of the world. Belief in any species is important because it influences behaviour and behaviour influences survivability. Until recently in evolutionary time, the belief system of all advanced animals was hard-wired in their brains and essentially identical in all individuals of the species. This arrangement produces behaviour patterns generally consistent within the species and conventionally described as instinctive. These beliefs are conducive to species survival but slow to respond in the event of environmental change.
Now a hypothesis, or possibly just a conjecture: recently, in some primate species to some extent, and in Homo Sapiens to a very significant extent, belief systems became mutable at the individual level, presumably the result of increasing brain complexity. The possibility of different individuals displaying different behaviours arose. The first people had appeared. Those of a more spiritual disposition might see this as the time the spark sprang from the finger of the old man on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and humans acquired a soul. This variability in individual behaviour provided a completely new path along which the species could evolve.
This development posed both opportunities and threats. A group whose members behaved differently from one another and with reciprocal incomprehension would not survive. Therefore it could reasonably be expected that the basic individual urge to survive would drive such a group towards commonly agreed belief. However, if this common belief were to spread throughout the species the opportunity to exploit diversity would be lost.
Between the extremes of destructive chaos on one hand and peaceful stagnation on the other a third arrangement emerged. The species structured itself into groups, each internally homogeneous in belief but different in belief from all other groups. Now there could be competition between belief systems, ie between what are now conventionally called cultures, while harmony and mutual comprehension was maintained within mono-cultural groups.
There remained only the question of the most efficient mechanism for group competition.
As a mechanism of competition warfare had the advantage firstly of being more or less available. Some years ago David Attenborough’s team shot remarkable footage of a band of chimpanzees mounting a lethal attack on an unaware group of monkeys. It was chilling to observe, as they closed on their prey, how much they resembled a section of infantry advancing to contact. This was a hunting party at work; it wasn’t really warfare; but it was very close.
Also, warfare is a very high level human activity. It exercises skills in organization, planning, command and control, and technology. An army requires physical resources and demands strength, vigour and endurance on the part of its members. A culture that can field a victorious army is likely to be a more capable culture overall than one that can’t. Warfare became selected as the mechanism because it was feasible and because it was efficient.
The downside of warfare is the terrible suffering it imposes on individuals. The misery of war is the price paid by individuals in enabling the species to spread and dominate the planet. We speak of war in a way that suggests we vaguely sense this reality. We speak of it as of a feared external agency beyond our control; a lurking menace that may and, from time to time, does overwhelm us. The four horsemen of the apocalypse are usually listed as Pestilence, Famine, War and Death. War fits in this list only if we see it as an evil that befalls us, not something we do to ourselves. So, despite the fact that we individuals are the war-makers, we really don’t accept that it is entirely, or even mainly, our fault. We are right so to feel. War is for the species, not for us.
Purposeful activity raises the question of a directing agent. Paradoxically the only physical entity capable of playing this role is carried by the individual, who is low man on the totem pole. The mind is carried by the individual, but it is evolved to serve the interest of the species, the group and the individual in that order of priority. The interest of these entities differ and are often conflicting. That is why we find ourselves so difficult to understand.
If it is accepted that recent human evolution has been driven by competition between more-or-less arbitrarily chosen belief systems then human knowledge can be seen as having been acquired more in the mindless way a lizard learnt to fly rather than in the way Pythagoras figured out that hypotenuse thing.
Individual cognitive ability is perhaps not as important a characteristic as it is commonly held to be. It is of no use without knowledge to work on. Like a computer without input data, or a baby, it can’t do anything if it doesn’t know anything. Early modern man was broadly and deeply ignorant except in the matter of human social interaction, where he was probably as knowledgeable as we are. This is therefore an area in which cognitive ability could provide competitive advantage at the individual level. It has been suggested that cognitive abilities did indeed evolve to handle interpersonal competition and this suggestion fits.
It seems reasonable to think that as the knowledge base of the species grew, cognitive skills that evolved to meet social needs came progressively to be applied to extrapolate from the evolved knowledge base. This is not to say that cognition displaced what might be called instinctive belief. Spontaneous emergence of arbitrary belief still occurs. That is why we are continually amused, irritated or terrified by some beliefs we hear expressed. It is nonetheless true that many advances in knowledge have been made by people who doggedly pursued a goal which they had no rational reason to believe was possible. The species and groups can afford to play this low probability-high return game that is negative for individuals. The word ‘irrational’ is often applied to these beliefs. There is no absolute measure of rationality. It is relative. A belief is deemed ‘rational’ or otherwise only by the consensus opinion of the belief group making the judgement
It seems likely that the evolutionary process driving humanity has itself been evolving. Just in time, it might be said, as we have become so good at warfare that the damage we can inflict on each other is now greater than any possible benefit deriving from competition. As the knowledge base of the species increased the effectiveness of individual cognitive ability has become more influential. This process could be thought of as mere cultural growth being elevated to civilisation. Is this our salvation?
The defining characteristic of civilisation, as opposed to culture, is its focus on the welfare of the individual. It is therefore aberrant. Evolution serves the species. In relation to the individual the species cares only that, for the most part, individuals are survivable. It doesn’t care whether they are ‘happy’ or not. A group which sees the interest of its individuals as constituting its highest priority will fail in competition with one conforming with the evolutionary model. Perhaps we see here a reason for religious belief above that of simple group bonding. It works to pre-empt the inclination of intelligent individuals to make human happiness the greatest good. It and other spiritual belief does this by providing some abstract greater ‘good’ to trump our interest and keep us in our evolutionary place.